A firefighter lost his life battling the largest fire in California history last month in a series of events that began when an air tanker dropped thousands of gallons of flame-suppressant over some treetops, a report from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.
The Boeing 747 air tanker mistakenly flew too close to the ground. The fire-suppressant that it dropped hit some trees beneath it with such tremendous force that it uprooted an 87-foot tree, which landed on 42-year-old Matthew Burchett, a fire battlion chief from Utah, the report found.
Another large tree fell over from the impact of nearly 20,000 gallons of liquid, injuring three other firemen from Burchett’s crew, The Associated Press reported Friday.
Burchett and the other firefighters were assigned to create a boundary designed to prevent the fire from spreading when the air-drop was announced over a radio, telling firefighters to “Clear the area out.” No one from Burchett’s crew responded to the warning, though the report says that “when personnel are working under a tree canopy, supervisors must ensure the drop path is cleared.”
When battling a large fire, bulldozers and hand crews are often tasked with clearing trees in surrounding areas so there’s no grass or fuel to feed the flames. Dropping retardant on these areas makes it harder for the fire to spread.
The pilot of the 747 mistakenly released the fire-suppressant too close to the ground because the thick trees and dense brush prevented the pilot from noticing that the plane was flying over a hill.
“The rise in elevation resulted in the retardant drop only being approximately 100 feet above the treetops at the accident site,” the report notes.
The Mendocino Complex Fire, which started in late July just north of San Francisco. It burned more than 450,000 acres.